Ancient moss, Takakia may not survive climate change

The 390-million-year-old ancient moss Takakia is impacted by warming temperatures, rapid glacier melting, and increased UV radiation despite mutational genome
Shubhangi Dua
Geomorphological view of the Takakia field study site near Gawalong East Glacier at altitude 3,800-4,400 meters, Bomi County, Tibet
Geomorphological view of the Takakia field study site near Gawalong East Glacier at altitude 3,800-4,400 meters, Bomi County, Tibet

Dr Ruoyang Hu - Capital Normal University / Eureka Alert 

A new study discovered that millions of year-old moss – Takakia is becoming harder to locate due to accelerating climate change

The slow-growing but also the fastest-evolving species ever studied is in danger of extinction. Takakia is a rare moss found only in small patches in the Tibetan Plateau and countries of Japan and the US, too, a statement by the scientists noted. 

It took 18 expeditions for researchers to reach the moss’s 4,000-meter-high home in the Himalayas, where they collected samples and studied the species' habitat.

Ruoyang Hu, plant biologist and co-expedition leader from Capital Normal University in China, alluding to the challenges of conducting the research, stated: 

“In the Himalayas, you can experience four seasons within a day. At the foot of the mountain, it is sunny and clear. When you get to the halfway point, there is always a light rain—it feels like you’re walking in a cloud. And when you get to the top, it snows, and it’s very cold.”

Fastest evolving genes

The team discovered the Takakia was already a 100-million-year-old moss when the Himalayas rose underneath it. This altered the species’ habitat dramatically and forced it to adapt quickly. 

Ralf Reski, the study’s author and a plant biotechnologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany, said, “The idea was to go as deep as possible into the history of the first land plants to see what they can tell us about evolution.”

“We found that Takakia is currently the genome with the highest number of fast-evolving genes. It's very active on the genetic level,” he added. 

The statement further reveals that the ancient moss with ample genome evolved over generations of selection. They adapted themselves to repair broken DNA and recover from UV damage

Yikun He, author and plant biologist at Capital Normal University, explains that Takakia plants are covered with heavy snow for eight months each year and subjected to high-intensity ultraviolet radiation during the four-month light period.

Withstanding storms

As a result, the plants began executing a flexible branching system and developed the ability to grow in different locations. “This continuous branching forms a network structure and a very sturdy population structure, which can effectively resist the invasion of heavy snowstorms,” stated the biologist. 

Despite its vital functions withstanding generations of extreme weather conditions, the species may not survive the climate crisis. This is because Takakia is experiencing higher UV radiation than ever, caused by the steadily warming climate and melting glaciers. 

Upon conducting tests in the lab, the team of scientists uncovered that the current conditions endured by Takakia are lethal even for plants adapted to severe environments.

The researchers analyzed the moss’s environment using satellite weather data and used equipment to study its microclimate. Furthermore, they set up time-lapse cameras to monitor significant environmental shifts in the broader ecosystem. 

Dwindling population

Experts determined that over the study period, the ancient moss population in Tibet dwindled by approximately 1.6 percent yearly.

Hu said, “Our prediction shows that suitable conditions regions for Takakia will shrink to only around 1,000-1,500 square kilometers worldwide at the end of the 21st century.”

According to the researchers, it is highly probable that the moss will not survive beyond a century.

The study’s authors suggest spreading awareness regarding lesser-known species such as Takakia. Additionally, they are proposing an international effort to study these species and find solutions to protect and cultivate them. 

“We humans like to think that we are on top of evolution, but the dinosaurs came and went, and so might humans if we are not careful with our planet,” Reski stated.

Takakia may die because of climate change, but the other mosses will survive, even if we humans cannot. You can learn a lot from the simplest plants about the history of this planet and maybe the future.”

The study was published earlier today in the journal – Cell.

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